WASHINGTON — As operations in Yemen and Syria continue to deplete military arsenals from Gulf Cooperation Council nations, those countries have publicly campaigned to speed up the US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) system.
But leadership of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is downplaying concerns, instead describing the push as part of the back-and-forth haggling process from nations looking to speed along the FMS process and lower the price on US goods.
The committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Ben Cardin, of Maryland, said the process "runs into friction, at times," but that overall it has "accomplished some good things.
"I know there are some countries that get anxious, but normally the reasons for the delays are understandable, and there are checks and balances — and ways to move things forward if they have to," Cardin said.
Despite reports that restrictive US policies are driving sales to competing nations' gear, Cardin expressed confidence in the US. He said foreign buyers and US contractors use these stories to prod the government to approve sales.
"You hear that all the time, but to be perfectly blunt about it, our equipment is better, the relationship with America is better, our training is better, everything is better about ours," Cardin said. "They want our equipment, they want our cooperation. I think they use that argument to leverage and move us forward.
At November's Dubai Airshow, held in the United Arab Emirates, partner nations made it clear to US officials and industry representatives that the FMS system is moving too slowly, raising the specter that the GCC nations could turn elsewhere, in particular buying drones from China or Russia.
The issue hit a nerve with Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, who attended the airshow and acknowledged concerns from foreign partners there. Then on Dec 2, James pledged to lead an effort to try and speed up the FMS system.
However, that effort is still in the nascent stages — so nascent that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said he was unaware of James' efforts.
"I don't think there's any question that there are lengthy delays," Corker said. "I can understand why she may be looking at things to be moving things along."
Though there have been conflicts between presidential administrations and the Hill historically over specific sales, Cardin claimed that in this Congress, there have been no major objections once the Obama administration formally notifies Congress.
A key Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Tim Kaine, of Virginia, acknowledged hearing specific examples of sales moving slowly, but wasn't ready to chalk that up to a flaw in the process.
"I don't know that's the procedure or structure, or more about challenging questions," Kaine said.
Others are less sanguine about the issue. Outside the committee, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that on a recent visit to the Middle East, he heard from allies with similar concerns:
"They're frustrated. I have a concern about the lack of speed," McCain said. "I have concern about it disappearing in the bowels of the State Department."
Many of the concerns over the FMS process were echoed Dec. 8 at an event held at the Atlantic Council, with Barry Pavel, former special assistant to the president and senior director for defense policy and strategy on the National Security Council staff, sounding the alarm.
"It's a really, really difficult process," Pavel said of the FMS system. "It's extremely difficult, time consuming, very long, very frustrating, multiple approvals."
Those partner nations that are now in conflict, in particular countries like the UAE or Saudi Arabia, which are very active in Yemen, will start to look elsewhere because "you're in active operations and you need that equipment.
"The nature of the world, the nature of defense technology now and going forward to 2030 and beyond is this stuff is going to proliferate widely," Pavel said of defense technology such as drones. "There's going to be a lot more choice for countries who would prefer to deal with the United States, so we really need to get our act together and streamline our processes."
Despite the concerns, however, the US has not yet seen an actual FMS hit.
Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) director Vice Adm. Joseph Rixey said in October that 2015 was the agency's biggest year yet, and regionally there have been almost $20 billion in arms sales to the Gulf since the Iran deal was struck, with almost $19 billion of that going to Saudi Arabia.
Speaking last week at the Atlantic Council, Nawaf Obaid, visiting fellow with the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, downplayed the idea that Saudi Arabia would turn to cheaper Russian-made equipment.
There is "one thing that I highly doubt will ever enter any Saudi arms forces, and that's Russian weaponry," he said. "So I don't think that's an issue."
Obaid, who has served as adviser to a number of Saudi officials over the past 10 years, also expressed confidence that Saudi would be sticking with US goods in the future, noting "there is a history there."